Unfortunately no reading material was available in time for this preview but I was a huge fan of Szalay's Man Booker-shortlisted All That Man Is. Alan Hollinghurst put it very well in the Guardian: "A revelation... Not only of a brilliantly inventive and observant writer... but of new possibilities for the novel as a form." This is an original BBC Radio 4 commission and the stories will be broadcast on Radio 4 over 12 weeks between October and December this year. Twelve diverse protagonists circumnavigate the world in 12 journeys to see lovers and parents, children and siblings, or nobody at all....
As Szalay consistently uproots his reader, proliferating characters and locations, the collection could be seen as an experiment in the limits of sympathy....As the narrative shifts from one space to another, the book becomes a practical test case for the way in which we feel (or fail to feel) for others.
Such calculated neutrality is the perfect foil to some heart-stoppingly beautiful prose. Bougainvillea floats “on the water like scraps of pink tissue paper”. The sun suddenly comes out. The wind dislodges “blossoms from all the trees in the street”. Things in this elegant, frightening, politically charged book, fall apart. They also lift off.
What Szalay does so well is the minute-by-minute apprehension of the close-up world, what he calls “the tightly packed fabric of reality”, combined here with an impressively global vision. We may live on a planet that has shrunk sufficently to enable golfing weekends in Vietnam, but at the same time air travel reminds us of what “insignificant specks” we are – the “quantity of emptiness” all around our atomised selves...It could be read as an inspirational mission statement for the collection, or a brutal irony. It’s part of Szalay’s genius that he can encompass the distance between the two.
This is a minor work, not half the length of ATMI, yet in some ways Szalay’s task is harder. He must encapsulate essential personality within mere fragments of lives rather than whole chapters; half the main characters are women (as opposed to none); there is less recourse to satire. In the end, these moments of turbulence cannot represent all that a man (or woman) is. However, Szalay’s gift for inhabiting entirely different lives is as remarkable and spooky as ever.
There’s something rather plodding about this set-up, but it’s to Szalay’s credit that the turbulence always catches you off guard. Each chapter is extremely short, and yet, with impressive economy, Szalay establishes both a new character and a sense of security, only to shatter it with a swift, surprising reveal. In one chapter, Marion, a famous novelist, goes to hospital to visit her daughter Annie, who has just given birth for the first time: “Annie looked up and immediately said, almost shouted at her, ‘He’s blind’”. The remaining five pages deal with Marion’s life-changing failure to rise to the situation. “It was one of those events, she thought, that makes us what we are, for ourselves and for other people.”
Szalay has said that he is happiest writing the contemporary novel; the context of his preferred writing is ‘my world’. He knows about people: the closeted gay who is violent to his wife; the woman whose husband accepts her infidelity (he ‘recognises her autonomy as an individual and she despised him for it’); and the mother whose ‘liberal bona fides’ are boosted by her daughter’s fiancé being a Syrian refugee. Stark and spare, Turbulence is an impressive novel.
With its sweeping vision of a complex, interconnected world always in motion, it feels like Turbulence is attempting to do on a global scale what Szalay’s last book, All That Man Is, did for Europe... What Turbulence shares with its predecessor is Szalay’s characteristically effortless prose, his ability to distil lives into vignettes, the sense of an author whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless. The 21st century, Turbulence suggests, is taking place several miles above the earth, or in overlit and anonymous airports. Szalay is our greatest chronicler of these rootless, tradeworn places, and the desperate, itinerant lives of those who inhabit them.
Turbulence is written in a similar idiom and has a similar structure to All That Man Is, but it pushes the minimalism further. The result is a more obviously elegant book, in a way that’s artful rather than arty, with little appreciable loss of narrative drive. The basic structure is simple. It’s a book of 12 stories, each constructed around, and named after, a flight: “LGW — MAD”, “MAD — DSS”, “DSS — GRU”, etc. The principal character of each new story is a minor figure from the preceding one, and the final story loops back to a character from the first one, as also happened in All That Man Is... Page by page, though, Szalay’s mixture of directness and withholding looks increasingly masterly.
Now Szalay has pared his approach down even further in Turbulence. In just 136 pages he tells 12 stories, this time overtly linked in a handing-on the baton fashion, travelling around the globe... So the subject again is not just human displacement, separation and loneliness but mortality itself, the way things happen and then “nothing will ever be the same again”. Turbulence, told so limpidly that it may seem quite slight, is a chilling achievement.